Kathy Rinaldi was a tennis prodigy in the early 1980s, reaching the French Open quarterfinals as a 14-year-old, shortly after turning pro, then a couple months later becoming the youngest player to win a match at Wimbledon.
For more than a decade, Rinaldi has helped develop a new generation of prodigies through her work in player development for the United States Tennis Association.
She not only knows this generation of great American players, she knows what they are experiencing on the professional tour.
That has helped make her a masterful recruiter, perhaps the biggest key to success in her most visible role, as captain of the U.S. Fed Cup team.
Rinaldi, 52, will bring her great passion for international tennis to Everett, when the U.S. team plays Latvia in a Fed Cup qualifier on Feb. 7-8 at Angel of the Winds Arena. She will also bring a great team.
Not only is veteran and icon Serena Williams coming, but so are young stars Coco Gauff, 15, and Sofia Kenin, 21, who just won the Australian Open. Alison Riske, 28, and Bethanie Mattek-Sands, 34, round out the team.
“I’ve known them since they were little girls so it is really exciting to see them blossoming into top players in the country and in the world, and it’s very rewarding,” Rinaldi said of the rising American stars. “They know that I am there to support them, whether they play Fed Cup or not. Obviously, I want them to play Fed Cup and I am fortunate we have so many great Americans now in the top 100 (in the world) who want to play, and we’ve had great teams.”
That is exactly what the USTA was hoping for when it appointed Rinaldi as captain in 2017. She was taking over a team that had won the tournament a record 18 times.
But she was also taking over a team that had not won since 2000.
Mary Joe Fernandez and Zina Garrison before her had trouble getting the top Americans to play consistently. It was clear that recruiting was the key to success.
So the USTA sought a captain who was working with the top young American players throughout the year. They got that in Rinaldi, who began working in player development for the USTA in 2008.
Rinaldi understood Fed Cup, having served as Garrison’s coach for the U.S. team in 2006 and 2008, and she had captained the U.S. Junior Fed Cup teams in 2012 and 2014 (Kenin was on the 2014 team).
Positive results with the new captain were instant. Led by a group of young stars – including CoCo Vandeweghe and Sloane Stephens — the Americans won the Fed Cup in Rinaldi’s first season.
It was a career moment for Rinaldi, who had wanted to play in the Fed Cup as a player, but never had a chance despite rising to as high as No. 7 in the world.
“It’s right up there,” said Rinaldi of where it ranks on her list of accomplishments. “Everything I did, as a junior, as a professional, led me to this. I always say that it’s not really a job for me, it’s a calling, and it’s what I really love to do.
“Now, to be a little part of these young players coming up – and these young women – and to be able to maybe have a chance to impact them in some way, it is highly, highly rewarding.”
Rinaldi said many of the young players know what she accomplished as a player, “but I try not to talk about myself.”
“But I do call upon my experiences of playing to understand where they are coming from,” Rinaldi said.
Rinaldi represented the U.S. in three Wrightman Cups, an international team event that ended in 1989. So she understands the scheduling issues involved in adding an event like the Fed Cup, but she also knows the rewards.
And she said there is nothing like winning as part of a team representing your country. After winning in 2017, the U.S. was runner-up in 2018 and lost in the quarterfinals last year.
To get a chance to win it again, the Americans must first beat Latvia for a spot in the event’s new format: a 12-team “World Cup of Tennis” that will be played April 14-19 in Budapest, Hungary.
“I would love to win another one, there is no doubt about that,” Rinaldi said. “We’ve got some exciting young players and for them to have that experience to get their feet wet in the Fed Cup – and to maybe bring that title home would be amazing.”